That's why scientists like Pettis are working hard to figure out what's bugging the bees. Agricultural pesticides were an obvious suspect--specifically a popular new class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids, which seem to affect bees and other insects even at what should be safe doses. Other researchers focused on bee-killing pests like the accurately named Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that has ravaged honeybee colonies since it was accidentally introduced into the U.S. in the 1980s. Others still have looked at bacterial and viral diseases. The lack of a clear culprit only deepened the mystery and the fear, heralding what some greens call a "second silent spring," a reference to Rachel Carson's breakthrough 1962 book, which is widely credited with helping launch the environmental movement. A quote that's often attributed to Albert Einstein became a slogan: "If the bee disappears from the surface of the globe, man would have no more than four years to live."
One problem: experts doubt that Einstein ever said those words, but the misattribution is characteristic of the confusion that surrounds the disappearance of the bees, the sense that we're inadvertently killing a species that we've tended and depended on for thousands of years. The loss of the honeybees would leave the planet poorer and hungrier, but what's really scary is the fear that bees may be a sign of what's to come, a symbol that something is deeply wrong with the world around us. "If we don't make some changes soon, we're going to see disaster," says Tom Theobald, a beekeeper in Colorado. "The bees are just the beginning."
And the White House senior adviser for nutrition policy Sam Kass--who also cooks dinner for the Obama family most weeknights--has also discussed the issue in depth with the president. It's one of the reasons the White House vegetable garden expanded to include a pollinator's garden this year. And if the Democrats have their way, Washington will have one more high-profile bee advocate after the mid-term elections: Michael Eggman, who is hoping to unseat Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.). Eggman, a third-generation beekeeper and self-described member of the "beekeeper mafia," praised the administration for taking on the issue, "although until this point, not enough has been done. Colony Collapse Disorder appears to be a crisis with multiple factors including pesticide use and catastrophic climate change," Eggman said in a statement. "I am hopeful that the administration will carefully examine all possible causes and all potential solutions." In other words, if you're rooting for bees to disappear, you might want to reassess. There are people in high places who are on their side.